Freshmen rush to greatness at Oregon, Florida State

Oregon's Royce Freeman, Florida State's Dalvin Cook lead their teams in rushing

From the first day of summer training camp, the freshman impressed his new teammates.

On an Oregon team loaded with talent, running back Royce Freeman displayed uncommon strength, quickness to the hole and another valuable attribute.

His mouth. Which remained mostly shut.

"He listens more than he talks," offensive guard Cameron Hunt said. "That's exactly what he needs to do."

While most of the buzz around the 2015 Rose Bowl has centered on Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston, the College Football Playoff semifinal could pivot on two true freshmen — Freeman and his Florida State counterpart, Dalvin Cook.

Both have emerged as the leading rushers on teams better known for moving the ball through the air.

"You never know what to expect from the younger guys," Florida State senior Karlos Williams said. "You never know who is going to rise."

It has been a good season for freshman backs, with Samaje Perine of Oklahoma, Jarvion Franklin of Western Michigan and Nick Chubb of Georgia surpassing 1,500 yards. Freeman ranks next in that group.

Gut instinct and a knack for running inside or outside have fueled his ascent. Freeman became a starter in the fourth week and quickly made up for lost time, finishing the season with 1,299 yards and 16 touchdowns.

Cook arrived at Florida State as a highly touted recruit with size and speed. Sharing time with Williams and others in a crowded backfield, he leads the team with 905 yards and earned most-valuable-player honors in the Atlantic Coast Conference title game with 177 yards.

"It's always been in me," Cook said. "I took the role and I embraced it."

The toughest part for the kid from Miami was staying mentally sharp through day after day of practice. Young players often run into the "freshman wall" — a point at which the increased demands of college football become temporarily overwhelming.

"I didn't hit the wall," Cook said. "I just put my head down and kept going."

Freeman, who played high school football in Imperial, Calif., faced an accelerated learning curve as he got more playing time early. Coaches noticed him running cautiously at first.

"I tend to think too much," he said. "Over-think the holes, my assignments."

A gift for listening and learning served him well. Trusting his coaches, running looser, Freeman broke out for 121 yards against UCLA in mid-October and took off from there.

"It's not really something you can imagine," he said of the past few months. "Neither me nor Dalvin would have imagined the year we've had, but we're both, I'm pretty sure, grateful for it."

Both teams have other talented freshmen, including Florida State receiver Travis Rudolph and Oregon kicker Aidan Schneider, but none that have played as large a role as Freeman and Cook.

Running from a spread offense — with a quarterback who can scramble, execute the option and otherwise keep defenses off-balance — should help Freeman find space at the Rose Bowl on Thursday.

Cook will work from a pro-style scheme that features All-American guard Tre' Jackson.

In a matchup between top-flight quarterbacks, the team that can take control on the ground figures to have an advantage. And that puts the spotlight on a pair of precocious freshmen.

"Young guys being able to step up and contribute early," Oregon linebacker Derrick Malone Jr. said. "It's crazy."

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